"Another Time, Another Place" opens with a scene of Italian prisoners of war being transported in an open truck through the damp Scottish Highlands. They are singing lugubriously, like forlorn canaries, and as the military vehicle winds up the narrow roads the prospect of a wartime cross-cultural clash seems intriguing. But this ultimately disappointing movie, which opens today at the MacArthur, is as dense as the mists over the coldly picturesque countryside, and as satisfying as a dish of brose.
Three of the Italian POWs -- a sun-loving Neapolitan grocer, an intellectual and a classically handsome Roman -- have been sent to be interned on a Scottish farm. Presumably the authorities knew that the back-breaking farm labor and rotten weather, the life of unending toil with only a cold bath to face at the end of the day, would be at least as daunting as a prison camp.
One soldier pleads for gloves after a few hours of harvesting grain. Their madonnas and crucifixes are regarded with suspicion by the locals, and one strong-jawed woman even refuses to work with them because they are, after all, the enemy. But Janie, who has housed the three in one of the outbuildings on her husband's farm to make some money, is curious.
The film is meant to chart Janie's awakening to another culture, her growing disenchantment with her grim life and dour husband, and the cruel result of her tampering with her fate. The issues raised are compelling, and the tension between the laconic Scots and the voluble Italians is vivid. But the conflicts are tenuous and unresolved, and what is left is a graphic portrayal of bleak Scottish farm life, which is about as romantic as wet socks.
Director Michael Radford and cameraman Roger Deakins seem to regard the harsh Scottish territory with an equal mixture of love and hate. Even after the grain is harvested, and the turnips brought in, and the "tatties" planted, the cows are always needing to be milked or attended through freshening. The only respite from work is a brief party, to which the women wear prim suits and where the men gather in a corner to pass around a pint of whiskey. And the weather is unendingly horrid -- it's either snowing or raining. When the Italians crack after too much rain, breaking into temper tantrums and tears because they haven't seen the sun in so long, Janie cheerfully promises them that the weather will be nice in September, at that point a distant prospect.
But as potent as the film is in evoking time and place, it is frustratingly inarticulate in exploring the humans in the drama. It isn't just that it's hard to understand the Italian or the brogue, it's that Radford's screenplay, based on a novel by Jessie Kesson, doesn't give them much to say. The camera lingers on Janie's plain face so much, while she struggles silently with new thoughts of passion and fear, that one wishes urgently for her to say something, anything, about what she's thinking. Radford is caught in the dilemma of portraying simple people -- the portrayal may be accurate, but stark inarticulateness does not make for high drama.
Phyllis Logan plays Janie with an admirable thoroughness, and is genuinely plain, not a cinematic frump who looks like she's wearing designer aprons. As the Italian soldier Luigi, Giovanni Mauriello is a strong counterpoint -- the two provide a contrast that somehow escapes the cliche' inherent in their pairing. He is dark, passionate and loves to sing; she is pale, restrained and repressed. Their attraction is as inevitable as their parting, but the ending is intentionally opaque on the question of what either might have gained from their experience.